Derailed? Third GOP governor rejects Obama high-speed rail plan.

Gov. Rick Scott of Florida declines $2 billion of federal money in deciding not to build a Orlando-to-Tampa high-speed rail line. Two other governors have made similar moves. It suggests a rocky road ahead for Obama's $53 billion rail plan in the Republican House.

By , Staff writer

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    Florida Gov. Rick Scott announces his new budget during a tea party event in Eustis, Fla., Feb. 7. On Wednesday he declined federal funds for a high-speed rail project.
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday became the third newly elected Republican governor to reject the Obama administration's $53 billion plan to build a nationwide high-speed rail network.

Governor Scott's decision not to build a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa does not yet constitute a state-level revolt against high-speed rail. Similar decisions to opt out of high-speed rail by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich do not critically damage the federal plan, experts say.

But they offer a glimpse of how the Obama rail plan might falter once it arrives at the US House of Representatives, which was recast by same tea party wave that swept the three governors into office. Moreover, the governors' actions could point to a refocusing the federal plan, which seeks to make high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans within 25 years.

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“The plan to reach 80 percent of the US population with passenger rail is somewhat arbitrary – passenger rail should be built only where it is needed and justified, not with some goal of total coverage in mind,” says Michael Gorman, associate professor of business at the University of Dayton in Ohio. “Rejection of passenger rail in states like Florida and Ohio is different than the more densely populated areas in California and the Northeast, because projected ridership is lower and passenger rail is less economically justified.”

Governor spells out concerns

In declining more than $2 billion in federal funds for the proposed Orlando-to-Tampa line, Scott said federal government’s ridership and revenue estimates are too optimistic, meaning that Florida taxpayers would have to subsidize the line. He also suggested that cost overruns could leave Florida taxpayers having to foot a $3 billion bill.

“The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits,” Scott said.

These concerns are well-founded, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “One major concern expressed by the governors is that the ridership will be lower than forecast and [the projects would] turn out to cost much higher," he says. “Experience suggests they will be right: forecasts of all forms of public-transport use throughout the world have tended to be optimistic, and cost estimates have been way below the actual cost.”

The most promising places in the US for high-speed rail, experts say, are the Northeast and California. Already, half of the $1.2 billion rejected by Ohio and Wisconsin in December has been reallocated to California, where state voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds to begin the San Francisco-to-Anaheim section of a high-speed rail project.

“More money will help us establish our project, which is slated to begin in the Central Valley in 2012,” says Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the California High Speed Rail Authority.

Proponents of high-speed rail criticized the three Republican governors' decisions. “The governors are sadly ill-advised and probably haven’t stopped and thought about what kind of transportation system this country really needs,” says Gil Carmichael, founding chairman of the board of directors of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver. “The system we have now is gawdy, wasteful, polluting and dangerous.”

Tough going ahead?

But Republicans in the US House are not likely to be swayed by such arguments. "The GOP governors' rejection of high-speed rail money foreshadows a hostile fate for the administration's plans in the Republican House,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

For now, many Republicans appear to be holding firm to the tea party's limited-government doctrine. “Republicans across the country are determined to demonstrate to voters that they are serious about shrinking the size of the federal government and its discretionary spending programs,” says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

The three governors may be tearing a page from the playbook of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who derailed plans for a partially federally-funded train tunnel project to connect New Jersey and Manhattan. He said the state could not afford to continue the project, and a Quinnipiac poll last week showed that his approval rating has improved to 52 percent – up 6 percentage points since December.

“Republicans, Governor Scott included, are betting on the long-term outweighing the short-term – and that is something that is not typical in politics," says Professor Brown. "Clearly, however, they believe that if they become known as the fiscally responsible party, they will not only win the 2012 cycle, but that voters will continue to trust them with the reins of government for many election cycles to come.”

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